By Vanesa Brashier, email@example.com
Cleveland ISD Superintendent Dr. Darrell Myers is putting in a lot of extra hours in the weeks leading up to the May 4 election, appearing at town hall meetings and before church and community groups to explain a $250 million bond proposal that will be on the ballot for voters in the school district.
If approved, $125 million of the bond will be used for new elementary and middle schools, and an expansion of Northside Elementary. The remaining $125 million, which would be used for a new high school, will be held in trust by the district’s board of trustees until such time that the district can sell those bonds and levy the taxes to repay them.
At a sparsely-attended town hall meeting on March 7 at the administration office, Myers explained that Cleveland ISD has seen a growth rate of 85 percent in the last five years, 17.3 percent in the 2018-19 school year alone. To date, enrollment is at 6,740 but Myers expects that more students will be added after Spring Break.
“Just this year we gained 1,043 new students. It’s putting some strain on our facilities. It’s putting strain on us for the maintenance and operations side of the budget,” said Myers, explaining that about 80 percent of the maintenance and operations budget, referred to as M & O, is consumed by employment costs.
“We added $6 million in employment costs in the last school year. This year we are at an additional $7 million, so in two years, we have added about $13 million in employment costs,” he said.
According to Myers, Cleveland ISD is the second-fastest growing school district in the state, percentage wise, second only to Prosper ISD, which is the northern contiguous school district to Frisco ISD.
“If you’ve ever heard of the growth in Frisco, you know it was exponential and now the growth is moving toward Prosper,” Myers said.
The biggest disparity between Cleveland ISD and Prosper ISD is wealth. Prosper ISD has property values at about $435,000 per student while Cleveland ISD’s property values are at $235,000 per student.
“There is a $200,000 gap between the two school districts. It creates a problem when we are growing at this rate. Our growth is outpacing our ability to raise funds. It’s outpacing our revenue stream and creating issues on both sides of our budget – the bond indebtedness and the maintenance and operations,” Myers said.
Five years ago, the portion of the student population living at or below the poverty levels in Cleveland ISD was 68 percent, a number that concerned district officials back then. Today, 88 percent of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged.
“We are to the point now that school-wide we are offering free lunches. We qualify for other federal programs due to that high percentage of economically-disadvantaged students,” the superintendent said.
The school demography has changed in the last five years with 74 percent now Hispanic/Latino, 17 percent white, 5 percent black, 1 percent multi-race, and under 1 percent each for Asian, American Indian and Hawaii/Pacific islander ethnic groups. English Language Learners (ELL) now make up 42 percent of the total student population.
“ELL kids have increased from 28 percent five years ago to 42 percent now. That’s a very dynamic population,” he said.
Taxpayers in Cleveland ISD are feeling the burden, particularly after approving a $35 million bond in November 2015 for new elementary classrooms at Eastside Elementary, renovations and an expansion of Cleveland Middle School, and mechanical repairs and upgrades at Northside Elementary. Two years later, in May 2017, voters approved an $85 million bond for the new elementary school outside of Plum Grove, an expansion of the high school and construction of a new service center on FM 1010.
Even with the expansion projects, portable buildings are needed to handle the overflow of students. To date, the district has spent $3 million on portable buildings with plans for more to be added in the coming months.
“We have 53 portables and have three more on order. We will probably need to add another 22-24 portable buildings next year. There is no alternative to that,” Myers said. “If we grow like we did this year, we are looking at about 7,800 students next year.”
In discussions with the Colony Ridge developers, whose subdivisions south of Plum Grove are responsible for most of the growth, Myers said he was told to prepare for another bump in student enrollment.
“They have Santa Fe 1 and 2 open, and they still have 3 and 4 in the plans. They are still developing and haven’t even opened up some of these communities yet,” he said. “In the other subdivisions, the lots are sold out, but they aren’t even close to being full yet. They are probably at 25 percent occupied right now.”
If the bond fails, Myers said the district will have to consider other alternatives, like having year-round school or setting up portable campuses.
“We are still going to hold school. We are going to have to get creative. Do I think having year-round school is best for kids? No, because you are essentially going to have two high schools going on simultaneously at one campus,” he said.
Myers said at some point the district will have to consider a tax ratification election that asks voters to approve an increase in the school district’s maintenance and operations tax rate.
“That’s just the spot we are in. At some point in the future, if something doesn’t change, we are going to come to that crossroads for the M & O portion of the budget,” he said.
The district shouldn’t expect any help from the state, he added.
“As tax values go up, the state reduces the amount they pay the district. Don’t get me started on state finance. I think it’s wrong that property owners are getting taxed to death in Texas,” he said, “but we are fortunate that we don’t have some of the taxes they have in other states.”
WHAT IS THE BOND’S IMPACT ON PROPERTY OWNERS?
If the bond is approved in May, a property valued at $100,000, minus the $25,000 state-mandated homestead exemption, will see a tax increase of $95.75 annually, or $7.81 monthly. A home valued at $200,000, minus the $25,000 homestead exemption, will have a tax increase of $218.75, or $18.23 monthly.
Senior citizens 65 or older will not see an increase as their taxes are frozen when they turn 65 years of age. They also qualify for a $10,000 homestead exemption for school district taxes, in addition to the state-mandated $25,000 homestead exemption for all Texas homeowners.
If you missed any of the first seven community meetings, you have 14 other opportunities. Below is a list of meetings that are planned through April 18. All the meetings are open to the public.